Monday, December 08, 2003

Rough Justice

Why should we have thought that justice could emerge from the ashes and bones of millions of murdered Jews? Why should we have thought that the smell of burnt corpses would be stronger than the smell of money? Even those who are optimistic about the human prospect should have reflected on whether there could be meaningful restitution to survivors and family members of those who did not survive. Why did we not see that the morally corrosive force of money would transform efforts to seek justice into profit centers for the greedy and well placed, that evil would beget new evil, albeit on a much lesser scale?

A road map cannot sufficiently clarify what all of the restitution litigation, settlements and participating organizations are about. There is the Swiss bank settlement, German slave labor fund, litigation against insurance companies and much more purporting to seek justice against those who stole from Jews, those who abused Jews and those who were complicit in their murder. There have been celebrated victories, as lawyers, accountants, experts, consultants and organizations have feasted on the tragedy that befell our people. True, there are those who have acted honorably and have eschewed any personal benefit. But there are lawyers who have reaped in a day’s work as much and perhaps more than Simon Rozenkier, recently featured in the New York Times, has been paid from the slave labor fund in compensation for the torture and gruesome medical experiments that were inflicted on him in Birkenau which left sterile.

Mr. Rozenkier is suing to get more, an action vehemently opposed by most in the Jewish restitution establishment. Stuart Eizenstat, a good man who has stumbled badly in his determination to forge agreements, argues in a Forward article against Rozenkier’s claim, saying that the new suit violates the agreement with Germany. Why should a person who has not been properly compensated lose his right to redress this wrong?

As he obliquely acknowledges, Mr. Eizenstat got snookered by Germany when it reneged on an understanding that there would be a special fund for people like Simon Rozenkier. In fact, we have all been snookered. We and just about everyone else were conditioned to believe that the agreements would result in some justice to victims. We have been snookered because we and just about everyone else were led to believe that the settlements were for Jewish victims, while in fact we have been fighting the battle on behalf of those who are not Jewish. Much of the restitution funds are for such persons.

While litigation grinds on, we have a good idea of what Jewish victims will receive. It’s evident that the Swiss have successfully pulled off one of the great bank robberies in history and that European insurance companies have successfully cheated a great number of Jewish clients. With few exceptions, survivors have gotten a pittance, if that. Many have not applied, either because they are repelled by the notion that payments can serve as restitution for Nazi crimes and/or because they believe that at the end of the day their efforts would be for naught.

In a period when corporate and Wall Street abuses have led to greater transparency in financial transactions, we know little about how much has gone to enrich those who are involved in the restitution enterprise. We have a right to know how much has gone to individuals and to organizations. We do not need additional small-print ads purporting to inform survivors of their rights. We need information presented in clear language detailing how much has gone to each lawyer, each accountant, each consultant, each advisor, each expert, etc., and how much has gone to the restitution bureaucracy and different organizations.

If this information were available – and it’s not likely to come our way any time soon – we would be shocked and, despite our usual lethargy, probably angry. Without public disclosure, an already sordid story is certain to become more sordid. This is an issue that cries out for investigative journalism by the Jewish media. Our newspapers and other publications must ferret out this story.

Mr. Eizenstat’s book on restitution negotiations is called “Imperfect Justice,” a title that suggests that the agreements fell short of achieving justice. His Forward article refers several times to “rough justice,” the suggestion being that the settlements approximated a just resolution. There is a different and I think more apt way of looking at the term, which is that the justice accorded to the survivors and their families has been harsh and unfair, at times even cruel, as in situations like Simon Rozenkier’s. I asked a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who attends the evening Talmud class that I go to whether he had applied for any of the restitution funds, in compensation for the murder of his parents and all eight of his siblings in Auschwitz. He said that he had, but that his application had been rejected.

Our approach to restitution has been a huge mistake. It has created the wrongful impression that Holocaust memory has a dollar sign attached to it. It has resulted in most people with legitimate claims receiving either nothing or very little and it has limited the ability of persons with legitimate claims to pursue their own cases. It would have been preferable to encourage individual claimants to go after the crooked Swiss banks, the crooked insurance companies, the evil German conglomerates.

We made a mistake and it ought not be compounded by any Jew or Jewish organization impeding those who now want to bring their own litigation.

If we could, we should jettison the entire restitution establishment. It is expensive and largely ineffective and some parts of it are even morally corrupt. Since it is very unlikely that the restitution establishment will disappear, at the least we need to distance ourselves from the lawyers, accountants, functionaries and organizations that are feasting off our still open wounds. They do not add to our memory of the Holocaust. They desecrate it.